First impressions of the new Google+ design


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I am a fan of several Google products, so I was delighted when I got an invite to use the Beta version of Google+ in early July last year. I signed up straightaway and started posting, circling and +1-ing.  My first impression back then was that it was much cleaner than Facebook: I loved that there were no adverts and irrelevant notification. My Google+ account gradually replaced another social networking site that I had been using, FriendFeed (owned by Facebook), for my geeky posts, science-related posts and interactions beyond my own network of friends.

So it was with surprise and delight that I found out G+ was rolling out a new user interface yesterday. There had been no warning that this was going to happen and it appeared that the upgrade was not going to be optional. I watched the teaser video with interest wondering when my profile would be updated. I didn’t have to wait long; just after 6pm last night my new  G+ profile was unveiled. The rest of this blog post describes my impression of the new UI.

I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed. As I mentioned above, I liked the original minimalist design of G+, with the stream as the focal point of the page and few links/icons around it. Now, my stream has been squashed into the left of the page and is much narrower, and the photos above my stream on my profile page are also smaller and less eye-catching. I can’t say this about myself however, my own profile picture now dominates the page; I now take up quite a lot of space!

Overall design

The main issue I have with the redesign is the size and position of the stream; it doesn’t make full use of the space giving a squashed appearance, and it is relegated to the left of the window. To the right of the stream, the trending, hangouts, you may know and similar sections occupy the space at the top but below that is just empty white space! This is not popular – put #whitespace or #usesforwhitespace into the G+ search box for some G+ user-generated comments and entertainment. It also doesn’t make sense: why waste all of this space that could be occupied by the stream?

The chat box on the right can be minimised and the stream can be enlarged by zooming in (CMD+) but this isn’t an ideal fix. The stream needs to centralised and made wider. On my 15” laptop screen, the left aligned stream and white space look slightly odd but on my widescreen monitor they just look ridiculous as shown by Figure 1 below.

Another issue is the text colour for the comments: gray text on a gray background is harder to read. Maybe the text colour could be made a few shades darker?

G+ isn’t all bad though; I particularly like the new bar on the left making it easier to toggle between the different pages. You can also customise this menu slightly by changing the order of your pages: I removed the Games icon in favour of the Pages one for example.


As mentioned above, I like the new vertical menu bar on the left which has improved the navigation. My Pages page is much better and makes it easier to move between accounts, this is useful since I manage a few company pages. Excluding the stream position/size, the Explore page is a good idea and my saved searches show up on the right so I can easily flick between them. I would get rid of the slider at the top but I assume this is only temporary while people get used to the new G+. In terms of the other new features, why has G+ copied Twitter’s Trending idea? Doesn’t the ‘what’s hot’ stream already serve this function better?

White space

The oddly positioned white space deserves a subsection of its own here. What are Google’s plans for this vast expanse of white space? Some people have mentioned advertising but this has been denied. (Thankfully! If G+ ended up looking like the Ryanair site it would be a disaster.) All we know is that Google ‘has plans’ for the white space. They will have to tread carefully here, otherwise G+ runs the risk of looking cluttered.

Home page

Starting with the soft gray bar at the top next to the Home icon. This is  customisable to a certain extent because you can change the order of your circles and this is matched in the bar. This could be improved by adding more then four buttons that extend to the width of the stream; minimalism is great but not when it interferes with functionality, and this would still allow for a minimal look. The More button with its dropdown menu is not ideal because I have 13 circles and 18 sparks (which don’t seem to be called sparks anymore) making my list quite long and forcing me to scroll down to reach the sparks at the end of the list.

Once you click on one of the buttons in the bar the number of people you have in that circle appear to the right. If you do this for a spark/saved search topic  then people and pages suggestions appear instead. I quite like this new feature; you can easily add people by name to your circles now, though I think some space is wasted by the selected photos that appear.

Profile page

Why are my five chosen photos now squidged into a smaller space above the stream? They were the focal point of my profile! This is particularly annoying if you manage a company page where you want to showcase designs or key images.

The profile picture itself is too big for my liking and would be better on the left. It wastes space at this size. My location is displayed under my photo and there is space to add where I work or go to university. It would be good if I could include my tagline here instead of my workplace.

I like the bar above the stream where I can toggle between my posts, about, photos, videos and plus ones. This is a neat addition that will be useful.


The compelling thing about G+ has always been that it isn’t anything like Facebook. It is less cluttered, there are no ads, it is easier to control who sees your posts and you can create circles to categorise your network. Unfortunately, the new G+ design is ominously like Facebook with the odd Twitter feature thrown in there.

Like many other people, I often use different social networks for different things. Roughly: Facebook is for interacting  and organising group events with my friends and local network; Twitter is for following breaking news; LinkedIn is for professional contacts and work-related group interaction and G+ is for posting and finding geeky stories that I can comment on.

G+ is really good for the variety of users, the way you can organise your circles and categorise your stream. It is unrivalled for geeky/cool images, stories and videos. If it is going to take features from other social media sites then I suggest that it drops the Trending section and allows for apps such as a polling app. This would have been particularly useful this morning when G+ was asking people what they though of the new design (see Fig.4 below); instead of asking people to +1 the particular comment they agreed with in a post, a simple poll would have sufficed, ideally with stats like the LinkedIn model.

Poll results:

Poll: Do you like the New Google+?

1 – I love it! +670

2 – It’s nice but still needs some tweaking. +1914

3 – It’s not my cup of tea. +144

4 – I hate it! +428

5 – Who cares? +235

Overall, if the design is tweaked so that it resorts to being more minimalist and the UI is made more customisable so that unwanted features can be removed then this will be a positive move by G+. I look forward to seeing the tweaked version!


If you want to tell Google what you think about the new G+, then click on the settings button/cog in the top right corner of your Home page and select ‘Send feedback’ to send your comments. That’s my next task…

For hacks to alter the appearance of your stream, see this post by William Gunn.:



iGenome: Should I indulge in personal genomics?


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I have recently been thinking about discovering more of my ‘inner self’, specifically, the digital representation of me: my genome. I am genetically curious and keen to explore the potential of personal genomics and the issues surrounding it. Investigating my own DNA seems to be a good way to do it.

After some preliminary research, I’ve discovered that there are a number of things to consider before I go ahead. Whole genome sequencing is not cheap, though it is getting cheaper. Do I want to let a company have my genetic information? Will this affect my insurance? The UK does not have a legal equivalent to the partial protection that the American GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) law provides. Do I want to know if I carry certain disease susceptibility genes? How useful is it to know my genome sequence?

The 3 billion letters of DNA code that comprise the human genome is the blueprint for all of an individual’s hereditary information. This unique code is packaged into 23 pairs of chromosomes; one from each pair is inherited from each parent whose DNA is a mosaic of their ancestors. Our genome is a digital representation of our past, ourselves and arguably an indicator of our future.

The first person to have their genome sequenced and subsequently published was Craig Venter, the American entrepreneur and research scientist, in 2007. Venter’s genome sequence and the methods used to decode it were described in detail in the open access journal PloS One, and the full sequence was deposited into the public database, Genbank.

Shortly after, the genome sequences of James Watson and a small number of other individuals were added to the database. This was the culmination of a decade long process, riddled with scientific and political controversy, infighting and argument. Surely, after all that, knowing something about your DNA must be worth it.

The $1000 genome

Steve Jobs reportedly paid $100,000 to discover his sequence. A number of other wealthy individuals followed suit, including Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google. In the years since, the cost of sequencing a human genome has plummeted, obliterating Moore’s law (see graph). Last month, Illumina and Life Technologies announced two new systems that could sequence a human genome in a day for the bargain price of $1000. Soon you will be able to have your genome sequenced for the price of a decent laptop.

With the sequencing process becoming cheaper, several personal genomics companies have been springing up offering to decode people. At present, the majority of these commercial outfits provide their customers with a reduced version of their genome, their SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’), in exchange for a small volume of their spit in a tube. These SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) are variations that occur in the DNA code when one letter in the sequence differs between people or chromosomes. It has been estimated that there are ~10 million SNPs in the genome; they are thought to affect how people develop diseases and respond to pathogens, drugs and vaccines and they can also be used as biological markers. A company will probe your DNA for a selected set of SNPs, then let you know which ones you have. Some companies might even tell you what diseases, traits or ancestry some SNPs are linked to.

Looking into the crystal ball?

So what do you do with all of these letters and SNPs once you’ve downloaded them? What do they mean? Can you predict your future? Well, not really. Knowing that you have a certain SNP or gene that has been linked to Alzheimer’s does not necessarily mean that you are going to develop the disease; it is merely associated with an increased risk of doing so. In addition, our understanding of disease pathways and mechanisms are still limited, it may be that the effects of one gene are counteracted by another. The development of a disease is often due to a large network of genes working together, not a single rogue gene.

Despite this, I admit I’m still curious to know both my genome sequence and what SNP versions I have. I would always rather know something about my genome than not know, equally I respect that many people will not want to know their genetic information.

Population genomics

The real value of genomic data is not in knowing the sequence of one individual, but of many. In order to exploit the full potential of genomics we need to sequence millions of genomes to enable comparison studies that show distinctions between groups with a certain disease and those without. A report in Nature  last week revealed that Norway is to be the first country to incorporate genome sequencing into its national healthcare system. Will Britain and other countries  do this anytime in the near future? Will people be willing to include their genomic information in a study? This of course raises privacy and data protection issues, I’ll attempt to address this in a future post.

Data science will dominate

An increasing number of genome sequences will result in the production of huge volumes of data. This will need to be analysed, interpreted and explained both at the individual and population level. In order to keep up with this tidal wave of data, more people with skills in bioinfomatics and programming will be required, in addition to people who can explain this data to patients and individuals. Perhaps this will result in more international genomic collaborations as more and more sequences become available. How will we manage all of this information? How will it be regulated?

Thinking about investigating my own genome has raised a number of issues that I have to explore before I decide to go ahead. I’ve added a quick two question poll below, feel free to add your opinions!

Poll 1:

Poll 2:

Let the personal decoding begin….

More to come…

Age & science: do scientists make their best discoveries during their 30s?


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Einstein once said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.

Although Einstein himself did his most seminal work prior to his 30th birthday, this is not the case for all scientists. Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin, Andrew Wiles was 42 when he proved Fermat’s theorem and Luc Montagnier was 51 when he discovered HIV with his colleagues. I have put together an infographic on this page showing 80 famous scientists and the age at which they did their most notable work. This is only a small sample of scientists and is clearly not a comprehensive or scientifically rigorous study, but it is interesting to see nevertheless. I made a list of famous scientists and discoveries from the 19th and 20th centuries then looked up the age at which they did their most notable work. I placed them into four categories: computer science & mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology.

For larger image click here.

The decade that stands out as the most productive for the scientists in the infographic appears to be their thirties. So is there any correlation between age and pioneering discoveries? A quick dive into Google scholar revealed a number of research papers on the subject. A study in 2002 examined 50 Nobel prize winners from each of the three prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine. This study recorded the age of the scientists when they had done the work that was rewarded with the prize and found that the centre points for age were: physics, 34; chemistry, 37; medicine, 40 (Marchetti C, 2002.) A study published in 1993 investigated a similar data set and concluded that scientists tend to be the most productive in their mid-thirties (Stephan & Levan, 1993.) Finally, a 2008 study of 300 randomly selected bioscientists revealed that the most productive age was 36-40 (Falagas et al., 2008) based on the number of citations from their publications. These studies all indicate that a scientist’s greatest potential for discovery is during their thirties, so perhaps Einstein was mistaken.

Today, a large number of young PhD graduates and postdocs leave science due to uncertain career structures, low salaries and recurring short-term contracts with no prospect of a permanent position. Could we be losing talented scientists before they reach their potential? Scientific success can be attributed to several different factors including education, motivation, economics, academic culture, creativity, experience, mentoring, funding trends and a reasonable dose of luck. Any correlation between age and success should be considered with these factors in mind before reaching a conclusion. However I can’t help thinking that we are losing many highly trained, talented scientists and therefore stagnating our potential for innovation.

If scientists are more innovative in their thirties as the aforementioned studies conclude, then we must ensure that our current academic system supports young scientists aiming to reach this stage. Those postdocs that stay in science continue to do full-time research well into their thirties, a time that is largely free from grant writing, administration and teaching. They will have accumulated years of valuable experience during their PhD and research posts, putting them in the optimal position for scientific discovery. However, most postdoctoral posts only last for two or three years, making it difficult to follow up on important results and often resulting in unfinished work. Additionally, several postdocs will leave in favour of more secure positions for economic and family reasons. Younger scientists see the instability of a scientific career and may choose not to go in that direction. Issues such as these have been explored by scientists such as Jennifer Rohn who suggests alternatives to the current system, and the organisation Science is Vital. Hopefully more can be done to retain our scientific talent and to prevent the stagnation of discovery.


  • Falagas ME, Ierodiakonou V, Alexiou VG (2008) At what age do biomedical scientists do their best work? The FASEB journal, doi: 10.1096/fj.08-117606.
  • Marchetti, C. (2002) Productivity versus Age. IIASA Contract No. 00-155, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria.
  • Stephan & Levan (1993) Age and the Nobel prize revisited. Scientometrics, Volume 81 (2) 549-565. doi: 10.1007/s11192-008-2141-5.

This post was first published on Scieditco in 2011.

Cherry picking science-related books and novels


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A number of new popular science books are appearing every year, written by both scientists and journalists. Despite this, the number of popular science books still seems to be less than those in the political, financial and historical categories. Not that I dislike the afore mentioned categories, I just wish that science books were pumped out at the same rate.

Over the holidays I read a few popular science books and decided to compile a list of my favourites. After rummaging through bookcases and reminding myself of titles with the help of Amazon, I put together two ‘top ten’ lists: one consisting of factual books and another one for science-related fiction. The publication dates fall within the last 10 years with a few exceptions, and the books are not listed in any particular order. Due to my background there is certainly a bioscience bias: this is not meant as a deliberate snub to physics.

Top ten popular science books

  •  The Mismeasure of Man [1981/1996] – Stephen Jay Gould
  • My Beautiful Genome [2011] – Lone Frank
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [2010] – Rebecca Skloot
  • Fly [2001]– Martin Brookes
  • Peoplequake [2010] – Fred Pearce
  • The Agile Gene [2004]– Matt Ridley
  • Fermat’s Last Theorem [2002] – Simon Singh
  • The Discovery of the Germ [2004] – John Waller
  • Bad Science [2008]  – Ben Goldacre

When I started thinking about science-related novels, I tried to steer away from the conventional science fiction genre and instead picked books that had realistic scientist characters in a more conventional setting. I was surprised by how few I had discovered. Is a science lab an unpopular setting for aspiring novelists? Or have I just not looked hard enough? When compiling the list, I aimed to select fiction that didn’t portray scientists as evil or mad (this reduced the pool considerably) with the exception of Frankenstein, which I included as the token classic science fiction novel.

Top ten science-related novels

  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow [1996] – Peter Hoeg
  • The Honest Look [2011] – Jennifer Rohn
  • Intuition [2010] – Allegra Goodman
  • Experimental Heart [2009] – Jennifer Rohn
  • A Brave New World [1932] – Aldous Huxley
  • Human Traces [2006] – Sebastian Faulks
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  [2008] – Steig Larsson (less scientific but did include computer hacking)
  • Snowcrash [2002] – Neal Stephenson
  • Prey [1997] – Michael Crichton
  • Frankenstein [1818] – Mary Shelley

This is merely a cherry picked group from my own bookcases. Suggestions are welcome, I would especially like to hear of more novels in scientific settings.

My alternative Dream School

Over the last couple of weeks I have to admit that I have been captivated by Jamie Oliver’s “Dream School”. At times this captivation has manifested through shouting at the TV, arguing with my other half about education policy or as the rediscovered childish delight of seeing Rolf Harris drawing on TV again.

In spite of all of the chattering and obsessive texting (seriously, just ban phones in class) the teenagers often appear genuinely interested. Several of them appeared to encourage David Starkey after his second lesson telling him that he did well and he was clearly delighted that he didn’t have to resort to calling them ‘fat’ or ‘porcine’ this week. Simon Callow’s class and theatre trip seemed to engage them less, but to be fair I know several well educated adults that would pale at the thought of having to sit through a play. Alistair Campbell’s guide to arguing had them out of their seats debating issues such as footballer’s pay and their own potential careers in politics. The majority of these snippets are on the website Most of the dream school teachers actually seemed to capture their interest despite being terrified that they were going to be eaten alive.

However, if the footage was all positive then Channel 4 would have been disappointed in their controversial investment/ experiment. The fight between the two teenage girls would not have been out of place in a BBC2 wildlife documentary on primates, complete with circling and chest beating. Some of the kids just appear to suffer from an I-can’t-be-arsed attitude which is hard to sympathise with. There are several kids from much worse situations than these who would love a spot in Dream School; those from tough backgrounds, those who are carers for a parent and kids with no family. Why are they sidelined in favour of some kids who have been excluded from school? I’m also slightly confused by Jamie’s message here. He left school with no qualifications but with some hard graft made it as a successful chef, now he lectures kids on the importance of education. I’m sure Jamie’s heart is in the right place but maybe dream school would benefit from some more entrepreneurial and less academic members of staff?

Have you ever been asked who your ideal dinner party guests, dead or alive, would be? I’ve decided to take this premise and apply it to my own selection for the Dream School staff room. Since I was a student for so long it includes a star from Countdown (which I am not ashamed of) and would go as follows;

  • English: My secondary school English teacher (not famous but she should be)
  • Maths: Carol Vorderman
  • French: Jean Reno
  • Biology: Charles Darwin & Rosalind Franklin
  • Physics: Brian Cox
  • Chemistry: Marie Curie
  • Geography: Michael Palin
  • History: The Monty Python team
  • Media Studies: Andrew Marr
  • Politics: A driver for one of the ministers (apparently they know everything)
  • PE: Paula Radcliffe
  • Music: Gary Barlow

Additional suggestions are welcome!

The real average graduate salary!


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I can be quite a data junkie so when I see a statistic reported in the media that looks a bit suspect warning bells sound. Last week, there were several stories reporting that the average graduate salary would remain fixed for another year at £25,000. These reports were based on two studies: the first was released by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) stating the £25,000 figure and the second by High Fliers Research predicting a higher salary of £29,000. After choking on my lunch in disbelief I decided to go in search of the data behind this information. Since the AGR wanted £200 for their report, I had to base my analysis on the freely available High Fliers Research report.

Before diving into the data I should maybe explain my choking disbelief mentioned above. I know people who graduated eight years ago with a 1st or a 2:1 degree from top universities who are just now reaching the heady heights of £25K never mind £29K. Admittedly, most of them are scientists and the fact that they are on the lower end of the payscale is not exactly breaking news, but my mental list also includes lawyers, architects, teachers, accountancy trainees and other graduate jobs in areas such as logistics and insurance.

So now for the data. The High Fliers Research report is based on the The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers from the autumn of 2010, including giants such as Accenture, Procter & Gamble, BP and the big four accountancy firms. These top 100 organisations were determined from a poll of over 16,000 final year students who were asked, “Which employer offers the best opportunities for graduates?” The report is entirely accurate when it states that for these specific employers and their available vacancies the median salary will be just over £29,000.

The problem arises when this data is interpreted and reported as the ‘average graduate salary’ in the media. That is a completely false assumption. It is the median salary based on 15,563 graduates recruited by December 2010 by 100 specific employers. Therefore this does not apply to the average or median salary of the 350,000 graduates of 2010 but merely 4.4% of them that managed to get a job with these ‘top 100 employers.’

Perhaps the article titles in the newspapers should be amended to; “A starting salary of £29,000 will apply to less than 5% of graduates” or “1.9% of graduates will have starting salaries of over £29,000.” The graduate jobs offered by the top 100 financial and blue chip organisations usually offer higher salaries than most other graduate recruiters. Equally the majority of them will offer positions in London where the salaries are generally higher.

Salaries from the High Fliers report

The graph above shows the number of positions offered in certain business sectors and their average salaries based on the High Fliers data. Investment bankers command the highest salary, while public sector workers receive the lowest. The accounting and professional services sector offers the greatest number of positions whereas the chemical & pharmaceutical industry offers the least. Several lower paying graduate recruiting sectors were not included in the report.

Data from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) covered a wider range of graduate jobs as shown in the bar chart below. A selection of these along with the average graduate starting salaries are listed here:

  • Architect: 20K
  • Scientist/Technician: 23K
  • Marketing: 18K
  • Graphic Designer: 18K
  • Ecologist: 16K
  • Charity fundraiser: 18K
  • Recruitment consultant: 20K
  • Teaching: 20K

The HECSU report is based on 224,895 graduate responses (82% of all graduates) from 2008/9. The average salary reported here is £19,695, which is considerably lower than that reported in the media.


This is based on 224,895 graduate responses (82% of all graduates) to their survey in 2008/9. The average salary reported here is £19,695, considerably lower than that misreported in the media.

HECSU dataWith students now facing fees of up to £9000 a year in England it is only right that they are provided with adequate information on their potential salaries after graduation. Potential undergraduates should be wary of media statistics.

Girl Geeks

I never quite made it to Girl Guides, possibly because I didn’t quite make it past the homemakers badge and clothing of the Brownies in the 80s. However this year I  joined a different organisation that shares the acronym: the Girl Geeks.  Girl Geeks is a worldwide community for women in computing and technology and has members from academia, politics, business and 3rd sector organisations. It runs a range of different events including weekend workshops and regular dinners around the world. I would be interested to know how many were girl guides too so they can fill me in on what I missed.

My first encounter with Girl Geeks was at the Edinburgh dinner in the Microsoft offices in September. First of all, it was fun to explore the fancy offices at Waverley gate and we started the evening sipping wine on the roof terrace. There were then two interesting talks by Aimee Maree Forsstrom (One laptop per child) and Josie Goodale (Cisco) followed by dinner and speed networking. This was my first experience of speed networking; the rules were you could only speak to the same person for 3 minutes then you had to find someone new. Not used to having my chatter restricted to 3 minutes, I found I was speaking at double speed so I hope the other girl geeks could understand me. 🙂 Speed networking was particularly good for remembering people though, especially after the event.

A few days later I set off for Stirling and the first Girl Geeks weekend. Situated 2 minutes walk away from Stirling castle in the old town, I arrived at the Barcelo hotel too late to fit in a freebie spa session but in time to be given my goody bag by Cathy. I was launched straight into the Champagne reception (a never ending supply of wine and refreshers sweeties were available during these weekends) and started chatting with other Girl Geeks from Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Over three weekends we worked on creativity, negotiation and funding strategies. It was a great forum for meeting other people and I really hope it will continue for the next wave of Girl Geeks in the new year.

Science vs Journalism


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A couple of weeks ago I went to the Standing Up for Science Media workshop at the Royal Society of Edinburgh organised by Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust. Their aim is to respond to the misrepresentation of science in the media and to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion. Approximately 50 PhD students and postdocs participated in discussions with experienced scientists and representatives of the media in addition to forming their own break out mini-discussion groups.

I have been to a few science communication workshops in the past but the style of this one stood out. The organisers really emphasised audience participation therefore encouraging a lively discussion. The panel for the first session consisted of three scientists  David Reay (geosciences), Paul Hardaker (Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society) and Sergio Della Sala (neuroscientist). Each of them shared their experiences with the media, both good and bad. These ranged from being upgraded to a John Humphreys interrogation on the Today program at a moments notice to arguing about the minute difference and ‘significance’ between bar heights in a graph. One of the most difficult things to master seems to be getting to the point of your research and producing a memorable sound bite without over simplifying which can be difficult in a very short TV or radio interview. Sergio’s advice was to communicate with journalists via email as much as possible so that you were not misquoted and could include the relevant details.

This session was followed by lunch where the participants broke out into discussion groups. Our group focused the problems that journalists and scientists face in communicating science. For the journalists, I threw scientific publishing into the ring, pointing out that many journalists don’t have access to certain papers because they are sealed behind the journal pay walls, therefore they have problems verifying or delving further into the work unless the journal has deliberately sent them the paper. From the scientist’s side it seems that time constraints mean they don’t always have time to write press releases on their work. Another point raised by someone in our group struck me as quite elitist, the suggestion that the public don’t understand science due to a lack of education/intelligence, an opinion that I don’t subscribe to at all. If someone doesn’t follow a scientific piece then that would suggest the article is not written clearly enough. This is also why I hate the expression ‘dumbing down’ because it suggests a certain contempt for the audience.

When listening to the radio or reading an interview with a scientist I frequently hear the interviewer starting their question with, “Now not that I can possibly understand this but….” This attitude is also something I encounter with friends working in non-science disciplines occasionally. Why do they perceive science to be so much harder to understand than other subjects? Are the intricate details of economics, architecture or the law simple? Science still has this geeky stigma which people maybe don’t want to be associated with and I suppose that may have something to do with it. Anyway, this situation certainly does not apply to all journalists of course and we were fortunate enough to meet three at the workshop.

Three journalists were included on the panel for the afternoon session entitled, “What journalists are looking for.” My initial reaction was that they dealt really well with an audience that came with preconceived ideas about how science stories are handled in the media. No tabloid journalists were there, otherwise they might have been given a tougher time by some of the more vigorous members of the audience. Two of the panel were from newspapers (Lyndsay Moss from the Scotsman and Helen Puttick from the Herald) and one from TV (Eleanor Bradford from BBC Scotland). It was interesting to learn how different the research and reporting process could be between print and television media. Like scientists, for journalists time is always a factor but in contrast to the long drawn out scientific publishing process that lasts several months (or more) print journalists have one day to produce a concise, well researched story and have it approved by their editors before it becomes old news. Time is even more tight for Eleanor who often has less than an hour to put together a one minute and 45 second clip for BBC news. Their tip for scientists with an interesting story was to tell them as early as possible in the day to give them the maximum amount of time to put together a report. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to corner any of them for a chat because they all departed after their session, probably to meet deadlines!

Perhaps some of these time constraints could be overcome by scientists if they contact the journalists a few days in advance of their paper coming out? Indeed this does happen via the journals with the embargo system but this will only occur with a small proportion of papers. Many universities have a press office that is prepared to assist scientists with writing press releases or practicing for interviews and this is a useful resource for anyone thinking of communicating their work. Another issue to arise occasionally was that of trust. Several scientists are concerned that they might be misquoted and are therefore suspicious of journalists. I think it was Eleanor who pointed out that it was in her interest as well to ensure that the story was accurate and that the interviewee was comfortable with the final result so that she could maintain the relationship.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the post workshop chat in the pub because I had to go straight to Stirling for the a Girl Geeks weekend that I will blog about later. It was a really interesting day though and was really well organised and executed by Julia and Lindsay from Sense About Science. It was a good idea to put scientists and journalists together to discuss how to work together and I hope it will happen again. It benefits scientists to get out of the lab occasionally to meet with journalists and inform the public about what they do, most of us are publically funded after all.

First impressions

After a few years of bashing out long comments in response to articles (and other commenters) on various national newspapers and a multitude of posts on my ever growing number of  social networking sites, I finally decided to indulge myself and start a blog of my own. This will be my first ever digital diary, hopefully a step up from my previous effort of analogue recordings in my early teens.

My future ramblings will probably have much to do with science, the web, start-ups, education, The Apprentice and various other random interests synonymous with a 21st century Scottish postdoc. Edinburgh is a thriving city with loads going on (and not just in August) so I’ll try to keep up!